Sometimes, Coaching Isn’t All That…Useful

[Insert name of famous athlete] has a coach.  If you want to be at the top of your game, you’d better get one, too.


Do you need a coach?  Let’s get to that in about 30 seconds.  First, some history, as I understand it.

Executive coaching arose around 40-ish years ago — the idea that you might receive formal coaching from someone other than your boss.

Some of the first coaches were therapists, who found themselves working with executives who did not have standard therapeutic issues – they had business issues.

Early coaching clients were people at the top of the large and established corporations.  It was very rarefied stuff.

Around the turn of the century, coaching expanded, as a field.  Among other things:

  • Mid-career executives were being cut loose from Corporate America, and were not particularly welcome to return.  People who weren’t therapists started to become coaches, and the supply of coaches expanded.
  • Universities started to run coach-training programs, as did experienced coaches; organizations arose to certify and train coaches.  This continued to grow the supply of coaches.
  • Investors started funding more ventures led by people who didn’t have significant  experience leading organizations.  Larger organizations increasingly used coaching with people outside of the C-suite.  This grew the demand for coaches.


  • Emotional intelligence came to be seen as a key leadership attribute.  Respected coaches began to emphasize EQ and its components, like “self awareness.”

Coaching for EQ is valid.  That said, EQ is not a patch for the software at the interface between your personality and your behavior.

It. Takes. Time.

(I recently described myself, early in my career, as having had the EQ of a potato.  Working on it.)

When you’re running a startup, you’re building an invisible airplane at the same time you’re trying to fly it.

EQ is not a ticket to a smoothly running organization; it’s a piece of the puzzle that enables you to see that things aren’t smooth.

Fixing the bumps in the road requires a separate set of actions, more than just EQ.

There’s a lot about organizational intelligence (OQ, lol) that’s non-intuitive.  It’s wisdom around structure, process, and how people behave when they’re in a group.

This wisdom doesn’t naturally arise from self awareness.  You can level up by surrounding yourself with people who have relevant expertise, and by listening to them.  With time and practice, EQ and self awareness will enable you to listen well.

Do you need a coach?  I don’t know.  If you’re new to leading people, EQ and OQ are both important.

Will you get that from coaching?  I don’t know.  Coaching is not a silver bullet.

It’s a process.  Coaching engagements must include goals, and ways to measure progress.  Your coach should talk with your team members and other stakeholders.

The engagement and the coach should fit you, and what you need.

And being coached is work — work you have to do yourself.   You’ve got to want to put in that work.   (Also, while many coaches are therapists, coaching is not therapy.)

If you’re being coached and not making progress, you should take a hard look at what you’re doing.  And why.

Very few people will talk about negative experiences with coaching.  I’ve seen the aftermath of a few coaching engagements that didn’t go well.

It’s a real waste of time.  And heart.

Photo:  wocintech stock – 64, via WOCinTechChat, via Flickr under CC2.0 license

(This is the last of my follow ups to What You Disregard, You Accept: Red Flags for CEOs.  It’s also cross-posted at Medium.  The series:

You Don’t Get to Skate: Coaching, Contracting, and Commitment

IMG_7078_2Over Christmas, we taught a 4 year old in my life to skate.

Someday, like me, he may look back and realize that he doesn’t remember not knowing how to skate.

I’ve always skated, and have solid skills:  avoiding wobbly skaters, supporting little beginners without falling, and even stopping with a twisty flourish.

No spins, no jumps.

The last few winters, I’ve found myself wishing to skate backwards more fluently.

This year, I decided to stop wishing.  I hired a coach.

At the first lesson, I wondered where to start.  My coach, Sarah, showed me the simplest move.  The forward swizzle:  you propel yourself forward by moving your legs apart and together.

Oh, my gosh.   I’ve skated almost every winter for decades.   And 30 minutes of swizzling — rather, trying to swizzle — kicked my ass.

That’s what coaching is.   It brings you back to basics you might have missed out on.

I also saw a weakness in my left side, probably from an old injury I thought had healed.  The left side of my swizzle — so much weaker than the right.

That’s what good coaching does.  It helps you to see weaknesses you may have papered over.

Some mornings these days have found me out on the ice before work, practicing my swizzle.

And that’s what coaching demands.  Commitment.

In the realm of business coaching, this isn’t always so clear, as I’m seeing in recent experiences.

I’ve recently met a number of people who are looking for coaches.  What people say they want is all over the map.

An online buddy, Jeff Carter, recently commented about feeling defrauded in coaching relationships.  He’s blogged about his experience, too.

Finally, I read a NY Times article on coaching.  Though it’s a trend piece in search of a trend, it also illustrates what a mess “coaching” looks like at this point in time.

Anyone considering coaching would do well to read the Wild West of Executive Coaching (at Harvard Business Review, registration/sign-in required).

This 10 year old article is directed towards the core HBR audience, not entrepreneurs.   The authors and I aren’t completely aligned.  That said, it’s a good description of the characteristic work and boundaries of a solid coaching engagement.

You don’t hear too much about bad coaching relationships — most people don’t talk about it.  Some people won’t even tell you they’ve worked with a coach.

This makes Jeff Carter an unusual guy, and he took a few minutes the other day for a candid discussion with me.  (Thanks, Jeff!)

Jeff found himself riding the wave of a career shift brought on by tectonic changes in his industry.  He sought out coaching.   (Read about Jeff’s experience at his blog.)

It didn’t work out so well.  One coach never met him in person.  The other basically rewrote Jeff’s resume: she was apparently unable to work with more complex issues until he purchased other services.

Neither relationship offered him new insight or learning.

And it sounds like neither coach followed a cardinal rule:  the coach and client have to start with a concrete, achievable goal.

Each party’s responsibility in moving ahead should be agreed, and a plan committed to paper.

The process of coming to this agreement is what some would call “contracting.”  It creates accountability for both parties:  nobody gets to “skate.”

Contracting isn’t enough, though.  As a client, you need to be realistic.

Skating backwards might take me more than a few lessons.

A coach must possess the skill and experience to assess the client’s reality.   And then, they have to be honest.   If I need 10,000 hours of practice, and not 3 lessons, my coach should tell me to adjust my goal.   Or refuse me as a client.

The open-ended coaching relationships described in the Times article?  Red flag.  I prefer a time-bound, fixed-cost engagement, with specific deliverables.

There are all kinds of bad reasons to hire a coach.  To get other people to change.   To have someone fix your problem.   Because all the cool kids are doing it.

Or because someone else thinks you need it.

Oh, wait.   If a boss, a board member, or other stakeholder in your work tells you that you need a coach?  Listen.

Then, it’s you, your coach, and your stakeholders who are contracting.

Finally?  If you don’t like the coach, don’t hire him.   Or her.

Chemistry fuels commitment.

And that seems to be a good place to close on this Valentine’s Day.

Photo:  Bryant Park, 12F.   The other day.  After swizzling.